Most of us have read or even been a part of the indignation from music business veterans concerning the portrayal of life in the industry in the Martin Scorsese/Mick Jagger/Terence Winter produced HBO series “Vinyl.” For the uninitiated, the drama is set in NYC in 1973, around the events at a struggling record label called American Century. I have been a part of the “that’s not the way I remember it” legion of mostly retired record people. I was so very fortunate to have spent the better part of my adult life as a record executive. However, rather than continuing the dialogue on what “Vinyl” is not, maybe it would be better to reflect on what it was… or at least what the business was in our eyes as young people pursuing our careers in the aftermath of the tumultuous 1960’s. Maybe this will allow us to let “Vinyl” free to be what it is, a fictional 2016 entertainment series that intertwines fact and fantasy.
Ron Wood, Mick Jagger, Bad Company’s Paul Rodgers, Kinky Friedman, members of the NY music media, and me. Photo credit: Mary Alfieri.
I didn’t officially come aboard at CBS Records until April of 1974, so maybe things changed in those few months between my experience and the 1973 setting of the “Vinyl” fantasy about the music industry. In addition, I didn’t transfer to New York to head national publicity for Epic Records until the middle of 1975.
However, let me share my reflections on those amazing years of the mid ‘70s and into the early 1980’s. It is, of course, impossible to condense those memories, emotions, and awe in a succinct blog post, but let me give it a shot.
Think about the tech world of today and perhaps of the last ten years. It’s a world of smart, hyper, inventive, and energized young professionals. Getting a job at CBS Records or Warner Brothers or any of the other majors of that era was like getting a cool job with Apple or Google today. Like getting into today’s start-up/tech industry, getting into the music industry was the ultimate career achievement.
By the time I landed in NYC, I was 25 years-old and just three years out of college. The Epic staff were my contemporaries. Most were in their twenties, and
many of those in senior management and the ‘veterans’ in the business were barely into their thirties. Ron Alexenburg, the brash young head of Epic was about 33 at the time, as was Steve Popovich, Epic’s storied and passionate head of A& R. Both had come up through the ranks as local radio promo people in Chicago and Cleveland respectively. They were blue collar guys, but they had largely stocked their staff with young, college-educated people, many of whom had risen from a college rep program that sought out the best and brightest. To be a CBS Records or Warner Brothers college rep was a transforming position, both in status and in establishing a bright career path.
We weren’t a small label like “Vinyl’s” American Century Records. Epic’s roster included Donovan, Sly & The Family Stone, and Labelle. We marketed and distributed the phenomenally hot Philadelphia International label whose roster included Billy Paul (“Me and Mrs. Jones”), The O’Jays (“Love Train”), and Lou Rawls, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, and MFSB.
Our roster had many new and up and coming artists and recent signees, the likes of Boston, Dan Fogelberg, REO Speedwagon, Michael Murphy and Ted Nugent. We had country artists crossing over to pop, including Charlie Rich and Tammy Wynette. This was no small operation.
With that amazing roster (and there were many more!), Epic was still the step-child label at CBS Records. Our big sister label, Columbia Records, had Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand, Earth Wind & Fire, Chicago, Weather Report, Journey, and Johnny Cash.
As I recall, CBS Records was commanding, at times, as much as 30% of the music industry’s U.S. market share. Warner Brothers, with its array of label imprints – Warner, Elektra, Asylum – had, at times, an even larger market share. Then, there was MCA, RCA, Capitol, and Polygram, all taking their respective chunks of the industry.
The point is, that although there were still a number of indie labels that might fit the template that is portrayed in “Vinyl,” the music industry was a far bigger and mass market oriented business. It wasn’t one or two A&R guys with ears or one promo guy with a bag of money and drugs or one sales guy dumping returns into the ocean.
CBS Records had three pressing plants that operated 24/7. Santa Maria, California, Terre Haute, Indiana, and Pitman, NJ each had vibrant warehouses where loud stampers squeezed music into vinyl. Semi-tractor trailers rolled out to move millions of 30-count boxes of albums to tens of thousands of retail outlets.
The CBS Distribution operation had hundreds of sales reps in 21 offices throughout the U.S. Columbia and Epic each had dozens of local radio promo reps, field merchandisers went into retail stores to check inventories for our hits, and even re-stocked the shelves store-by-store to insure our music was positioned to beat the competition.
And why did the hits look so good? CBS Records had a Creative Service Department with some of the top graphic designers in the world. People like John Berg and Paula Scher and their people, won Grammies on a regular basis. The Production team made sure that the massively complicated schedule for clearing publishing credits, paying session musicians, and manufacturing was on time. We had advertising people, copywriters, and a photography department. We were on deadlines and we marketed products that had to be sold when they were fresh. These were the real areas of drama in the old record business, but not the ones a Scorsese or Jagger could fathom. Mick, a savvy music businessman, was just too far up the food chain to fully know how his albums all came together in the mass distribution phenomena that existed in those days.
However, there was more than just a massive distribution system and huge U.S. field staff. The major labels had grown internationally as well. We had offices in countries around the world. A New York based international department coordinated the flow of music, materials, and information to territories across the globe. Daily contact wasn’t just with the U.K. or Japan, but with offices in Israel, South Africa, New Zealand, and beyond.
And while this enormous machine worked, we had an aesthetic at CBS Records, Columbia, and Epic that was built upon taste, dignity, and honorable leadership. It began with founder William S. Paley. The legend was that he told the young minions at his record labels that he had “a license to print money.” And that license was real. He demanded that the record division not ever do anything to threaten the company’s most sacred asset, the FCC licenses for the CBS television and radio networks, and the affiliated stations across the country. We were the “Tiffany” company. We were to honor our assets.
After Mr. Paley, we had other giants to admire. Goddard Lieberson, as Chairman of CBS Records, was a revered Broadway angel who nurtured careers like Leonard Bernstein’s and brought life to “My Fair Lady” and “A Chorus Line.” His sophistication, dedication to the arts, and class permeated our several thousand company people around the globe with pride and purpose.
We worked for and with people who brought more of that integrity to our daily lives. Bruce Lundvall’s commitment and love for jazz artists and his vision for excellence, no matter the commercial outcome, spawned success anyway, with Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis. He was another company leader who was easy to approach, had the ultimate sense of humor, and made you proud to be a part of his company.
I think back to the CBS Records Conventions, when the day started with product presentations at 8 AM and concluded just in time for us to do a quick change of clothes for a dinner show that might include Bill Withers, The Beach Boys, and The Charlie Daniels Band, all on the same stage in one evening. It might have ended at 1 AM, but no one went to sleep! We ended up in the hotel suites where you might come across a jam session that included Epic’s head of marketing, Jim Tyrell on bass, with senior sales exec, Stan Snider on keys, with Marlena Shaw singing! As a young person new to the company I was in awe to see these music business people engaging legends in late night music making.
My memories include early mornings in my office a couple of times each week, when a rumpled, older man with a big smile and a silvery flat-top would amble into my office. With a cup of coffee in hand, John Hammond would share his concerns about an artist getting their due, while thrilling me with slivers of stories about discovering and signing a stunning list of artists, including Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. An unassuming man, who was a civil rights leader, and just happened to be an heir to the Vanderbilt clan.
Oh, we drank and partied and ran around the country with our American Express cards. Drugs really didn’t find their way to record industry suites to a large degree, until at least the late ‘70s, as I recall, in any high profile way. We were out to see our acts perform virtually every night, as in those days if an act was performing in NYC, you went. It was pretty much mandatory. I was afraid to go to sleep. I might miss something big!
Our first job was always to get the company fired up about an act. The prevailing belief was that if we were all on-board with an artist, no one could stop us. That’s how a Bruce Springsteen happened. A group of hundreds of people who would not let his talent go unrewarded. I remember branch offices challenging other branch offices to who was going to do more to explode an up-and-coming artist. We loved our artists and we loved what we could collectively do to make them happen. The pride in that belief in our own power as a group was pervasive. This is what so many of us remember with such heartfelt emotion.
Somehow these memories don’t seem to equate to “Vinyl.” That story seems so small and dirty to me. Oh, we had our seamy side. There is no doubt that money changed hands. There’s no doubt there was sex and drugs. However, we know those things exist in every business. I believe for us veterans of the music industry, we are just so tired of hearing only that side about our business.
“Vinyl” is entertainment. It’s not necessarily true. It’s based on elements of truth. Most people don’t even care if it is true. Give us some good plot twists, a murder, some sex, and good music, and we are entertained.
And I was entertained for many years by working with larger than life personalities, endless pressures, and the countless popular successes that I shared with the many, many colleagues from the music business. Mick Jagger doesn’t necessarily know of most of those people or what they do or what they might have meant to his success. I do. They mean as much to me as the superstars we helped build. And I can only touch on a fraction of what our world was like.
So enjoy “Vinyl” for what it is. I’m going to enjoy my memories of a vibrant, hopeful, can-do business for what it truly was…